It originated in the teaching licence, or Licentia docendi, for the University of Paris.
Admission to a master's program is normally contingent upon holding a bachelor's degree, and progressing to a doctoral program usually requires a master's degree. In some fields or graduate programs, work on a doctorate begins immediately after the bachelors degree. Some programs provide for a joint bachelor's and master's degree after about five years. Some universities use the Latin degree names, and due to the flexibility of word order in Latin, Artium Magister (AM) or Scientiæ Magister (SM) may be used at some schools. For example, Brown University, the University of Chicago, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania use the degree abbreviations A.M. and S.M. for some of their master's degrees.
Theological Degrees: Theological degrees require special attention because they are amongst the oldest Master's degrees offered by universities. In the discipline of theology there are at least four master's degree programs. The standard degree for pastoral ministry is the Master of Divinity (M.Div, formerly Bachelor of Divinity) which is required by many ordaining denominations as it is the most comprehensive program usually entailing biblical studies (including the original languages) church history, theology, counseling and church administration. The M.Div. balances academic rigor and pastoral approaches. The second is the Master of Arts in Practical Theology (M.A.P.T.) This degree is designed for those with a prior BA in Bible and Theology who desire to focus primarily on pastoral theology and sharpen skills in spiritual formation and church leadership. While just as rigorous academically as the M.Div. the M.A.P.T. tends to focus primarily on that which is imminently "practical" in church leadership. The third possibility is the Master of Arts in a specialized area. This degree is usually shorter in duration and is focused on individuals who want to specialize in a specific area of ministry such as Spiritual Formation, Christian Education, Philosophy, and so on. The fourth is the Master of Theology (Th.M.). This final degree is considered higher both in rank and in academic repute than the M.Div. M.A.R. or the M.A.P.T. and is more academic in nature rather than practical. The Th.M. is technically a half-step between the Master's and Doctoral level. The Th.M. almost always requires a thesis of at least 100 pages.
In Denmark and Norway, the candidate degree is a combined taught/research degree, awarded after 2 years of studies after completing the bachelor degree. The student is required to write a scientific thesis.
The candidate degree is abbreviated as cand. and followed by a suffix denoting the subject of study - e.g. cand.mag. (Master of Arts), cand.scient. (Master of Science), cand.psych./cand.pæd.psych. (Master of Psychology), etc.
The candidate degree is required before enrolling in a PhD programme.
The Master of Arts (MA) is awarded in Arts, Humanities, Theology and Social Sciences. However, some universities—particularly those in Scotland—award the Master of Letters (MLitt) to students in the Arts, Humanities, Divinity and Social Sciences. (It should be noted that the MLitt is a research degree at the University of Cambridge, where the Master of Philosophy (MPhil) is the name given to the standard one-year taught degree, in contrast to the use of MPhil at other institutions for a research degree.)
The MA is typically a "taught" postgraduate degree, involving lectures, examination, and a short dissertation. Taught masters programmes involve 1 or 2 years of full-time study.
In law, the standard taught degree is the Master of Laws, but certain courses may lead to the award of an MA, MLitt, Master of Studies (MSt), and at Oxford, the Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL). These degrees are all considered susbtitutes to one another and are thus generally equivalent.
Until recently, both the undergraduate and postgraduate masters degrees were awarded without grade or class (like the class of an honours degree). Nowadays however, masters degrees are normally classified into the categories of Pass, Merit or Distinction.
The degree of Master of Arts may also be awarded, in the case of the oldest British universities only, without further examination to those who have graduated as Bachelor of Arts and who have the requisite years' standing as members of the university or as graduates. This happens, in England, only at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge (see Master of Arts (Oxford, Cambridge and Dublin)). It is also the case at the University of Dublin in Ireland. In Scotland, the degree of Master of Arts is awarded in some universities as a first degree to undergraduates (see Master of Arts (Scotland)). The practice of awarding these degrees of Master of Arts without postgraduate examination or coursework is very ancient although, among modern universities, anomalous.